Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Contemporary Ethics Project, or How to Shop at Whole Foods

Theodor Adorno, midcentury German philosopher and oppressive pessimist extraordinaire, is perhaps best known for his notorious declaration that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. Before that, he published an incomparably beautiful and difficult book in 1951, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. The first sentence of its dedication reads as follows: "The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter's conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life."

Don't worry, I'm not going to lecture you on Adorno. But for the last several months, I have at once felt this sentence pressing in on me and experienced a growing yet vague dissatisfaction with the terms generally available in contemporary public discussions of the good life.

That’s absurdly abstract. So let me accumulate some examples, recited from memory: a friend's worrying over which washing machine she should buy, trying to balance economic justice for workers, energy efficiency, and amount of water consumed per load; a series of articles on obesity which want really badly to dissociate corpulence from willpower or other forms of conscious, intentional action; the controversy around Bjorn Lomborg's newest book and the ethical calculus that goes into global warming; a few discussions in moral psychology I found highly troubling which try to do away with anything like reflection on ethics in favor of descriptions of moral intuitions; and the nearly paralyzing set of choices about food that I am called upon to make whenever I walk into the new Whole Foods next door to my house.

What is this dissatisfaction?

So when I do set foot in Whole Foods, the options spread out in front are daunting: tropical and exotic fruit I don’t recognize, incomprehensibly pristine fresh greens of bewildering variety, meat from animals raised alternately conventionally, organically, grass-fed, and/or locally. Given that I am dedicated to eating as sustainably as possible, I must ask: Should I feel guilty about choosing the wild-caught tilapia from Equador Whole Foods has on offer over farm-raised tilapia from the United States available somewhere else? What about frighteningly cheap farm-raised tilapia from China at Trader Joe’s?

It turns out that in order to decide what to buy I need an Expert to perform an sustainability analysis on a case-by-case basis. Apparently, lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to England uses less non-renewable energy per calorie to go from bleating cuteness in the mountains of the Southern Island to tasty treat on a dinner table 12,000 miles away in London than lambs raised right there, not 100 miles from Britons’ kitchens. This is the result of a complex economic analysis, one which I probably couldn’t fully understand myself, let alone perform. However, I’m guessing that I shouldn’t always prefer food produced in New Zealand.

What this version of ethical decision-making takes for granted is that all we need is ever more information. The utopia here would be a store in which there’s a label attached to every product which, in addition to nutrition information, would give information about environmental and social justice impact: x pounds of CO2 per calorie; y pounds of potentially carcinogenic pesticide released into groundwater per apple; z percentage of the labor force involved in the harvesting of this product who are underage children or illegal immigrants or paid an unconscionable pittance.

(The other side of this is the idea that if people just knew what was happening, they would Do The Right Thing, an idea that with even a little reflection, we know to be troublesome at best.)

Two points bear mentioning. First, which information we feel we need is a result of an ethical decision already made—another person might rather have the religion of company’s owners listed on these cards. The information Good Life Supermarkets, Inc. should and should not put on their food would be an object of intense debate. Second, and more relevant here, is that the sort of choices we constantly make, consciously or not, are made in a field of relative ignorance. Our daily lives are lived in nearly total disconnection from many of the economic, social, ecological, &c. impacts they have. In response to this, the consensus we seem to have tacitly reached is that the good life is scrupulously informed. Ignorance has become unethical.

We alleviate this ignorance by turning to Experts of various provenance. I need an economist to tell me what lamb to buy; I need an epidemiologist, a psychologist, and a dietician to tell me if and how I should proceed if I would like to lose weight. And, more troublesome, I need a Journalist to scour academic journals and digest them for me—since it’s clear I won’t be able to get on with my life if all I’m doing is reading economic analyses, ecological impact statements, and research papers in journals of affective neuropsychology. That is, if I could manage to process all that by myself.

My dissatisfaction rests in the feeling that we are increasingly directing our attention toward Experts’ information filtered through Journalism as our guide to the good life. I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about ethics in the last six months, wanting to write a series of meditations on ethical matters here. Before I could start this, I had to ask what I could add to the discussion. For a day or two I had a fantasy of playing journalist, doing various sorts of research to determine what the proper course of action would be when faced with a choice like: which tilapia should I buy? While that would undoubtedly be fun, it hardly seemed to address my dissatisfaction with the most visible ways of talking about the good life, nor did it play to my strengths. Which gets me back to the Adorno quotation I began with.

For Adorno, philosophy’s development is one which ends in a kind of unthinking rationalism, concerned more with a hermetically sealed realm of professional philosophizing than in taking up how to live. It very nearly becomes esoteric knowledge, in the strict definition of the word. Having lost philosophy as an art of learning and teaching the good life, we turn to science to at least tell us the effects of our actions. But contra Bjorn Lomberg, economics cannot tell us what we should do. Neither can psychology, nor ecology, nor medicine. At best, they can tell us indirectly what effects our actions are likely to have beyond the ones we can intuit ourselves. Often, even that is too much to ask.

Our science has damaged our ethics. From the social sciences, we are assured of a vast and unknowable field of effects our actions have; from biology and psychology, we are assured that our decisions have a vast and unknowable set of causes and influences over which we have neither voluntary control nor direct knowledge. In the middle, between two fields of ignorance, we are left to figure out how to live out our versions of the good life, which has increasingly made ethical consideration look like mere accumulation of information, as if all we needed were more knowledge.

That fundamentally misunderstands the problem facing us today as we stumble towards something that feels like right living. At best it is one part of a more holistic approach. What we need today is a way to understand how to live the good life in a field of ignorance. When we cannot be wholly accountable for our actions, when we cannot even be accountable for the effects of our actions, how are we to proceed ethically? Certainly, better and more information helps, but it cannot be the whole program.

That is my dissatisfaction. I am only now beginning to figure out how to think my way out of it. What I hope to offer here in the coming months is offer a series of little essays dedicated to humanistic reflections on current ethical issues, with a lay audience in mind. I will make reference to philosophers and theorists of various sorts. This is in part to give credit where credit is due, and in part because I think it is important to demonstrate the importance of humanistic thought to guide us in thinking about the good life. I am not a philosopher, and certainly not an ethicist, but I do study domains that bear significantly on ethics and the good life as they’re put together today: sexuality, technology, media, and the body. Ultimately, all I really want to do is figure out which tilapia to buy. But here, that’s going to mean spending a lot of time thinking about how I should come to settle on a particular tasty filet.

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